If you know your spiritual and/or aviary lore, you may know where the band Birdtalker picked up their name. It’s a saints-praising allusion… St. Francis of Assisi, specifically. “Part of the reason that we like him is that he’s a religious figure who really doesn’t like religion,” says co-founder Dani Green. “He liked to make a fool of himself as a way to remind people that no one is better or higher than anyone else, and he preached that creation was much more our family rather than something to be conquered.” And then, of course, there was the birdtalking: “There’s the anecdote about him on a walk with friends, going up to a flock of birds and starting to speak to them, and how they started to respond and come land on him.” St. Francis: the original sparrow whisperer.
The effects of the group on fowl and game have not been field-tested, but what’s been proven already is their effect as human whisperers, not to mention soul stirrers. With no label support, media buzz, or even imaging to speak of, their song “Heavy” has become a streaming phenomenon, racking up more that 20 million plays on Spotify at last count. It was a call to the heavy-laden to cut off ballast, if not do anything so drastic as take flight. The weightiness of the song’s weightlessness captivated listeners who discovered it through Spotify’s Discovery Weekly program, bringing the freshly intrigued out to see Birdtalker on their first tour recently, and whetting appetites for their full-length debut, One. For anyone who took to “Heavy” (reprised on the new album, after previously appearing on a freshman EP), there’s a lot more burden-lifting where that came from.
“Heavy” was written by Zack and Dani Green — the marrieds who front the band — to explore baggage that came bubbling up early in their relationship. For them, this was the unlikeliest of “hits.” “I wasn’t writing it with any motivation to have it be a banger,” laughs Zack Greene. “We didn’t have any inclination that any song would do anything. That song was written as a way of processing things that I was feeling. Dani and I have been married for five years, and at that point when I wrote the song, I was being confronted with insecurities and reactions that I have that usually are attached to past experience. And Dani was sincere and beautiful enough of a person to look me in the face and call me on my shit. I recognized that I don’t have to attach to the identity that I had consciously or unconsciously developed for myself… and could leave behind what was unhealthy or unhelpful.” It’s a message that resonated with listeners who were in far more distressed stages of their lives — like dealing with a divorce, family turmoil over sexual orientation, or suicidal thoughts… even if it emerged out of a heavy-duty version of The Newlywed Game.
If the road to “Heavy” picking up plays in the eight figures was hardly planned out, nothing much about Birdtalker’s path has been. “None of us were in bands before we started this one, which is a funny thing to say in Nashville,” says Dani. The Greens figured out they had some harmonic alchemy early in their relationship, but neither had performed music in public before, even solo, much less imagined starting a band. Zack admits he hadn’t even been much of a music lover growing up, having grown up in a household where there were only a few random Carpenters and Prince albums around the home. Suddenly finding himself exposed to a whole new world of music in his 20s, he began drifting toward emotionally intent acts like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and writing songs with his similarly newly muse-stricken spouse. Eventually, drummer Andrew Hubright, guitarist Brian Seligman, and bassist Jesse Baker drifted in, all careful not to talk too frequently or blatantly about incorporating as a group, lest they scare off the rock-band naïfs in their midst.
“I am not capable of really jamming — I can hammer out some root chords, “ admits Zack. “So I was intimidated by this Canadian man who had a very intense gaze, Brian, asking me to jam some time. I said yes, because I felt that fear was important to say yes to.” Voice memos of song demos were produced, and suddenly they were a band, in everything but name… or confessed intent. “We were very unintentionally doing what we were doing,” laughs Dani. “Looking back, Brian and Andy had more of a vision for what we should be doing, and were probably very frustrated that they were dragging us along into becoming a band.” All’s well that ends collectively.
In Birdtalker, you hear a combination of that utter lack of guile with the kind of songcraft it’s hard to believe the Greens haven’t been cultivating from birth. Genre-wise, One is kind of Americana, kind of not; they think their first EP, Just This, fit a little more squarely into that folksy camp than the full-length debut might. You may think you hear the foxy echoes of groups that take their high voices to the mountaintop, or the un-warring harmonies of duos who’ve emphasized the male/female dynamic in their music.
Maybe there’s a more easily defined genre for what they do as lyricists: the mindfulness genre. The Greens only occasionally write songs that derive directly from marital joys or squabbles, for better or worse. There’s a lot of heartache in the songs, but it’s an existential heartache. The search for meaning and purpose produces palpable frustration in the album-opening “Ankle Bone,” where Zack sings, “Maybe nothing is all that she will find.” But, later, there’s ease, if not actual catharsis, in “Take It Slow,” where they decide: “Let it go; no we won’t solve the problem of the one and many before bed.” What “Take It Slow” has in common with “Heavy” is their being “almost a permission slip to take a deep breath,” as Dani puts it.
There are some tense inhalations here, too. “Autodomesticated Animal” deals with the cultural expectations of women that Dani still challenges herself to overcome. (“Be a little naked but not too naked,” the song mock-advises.) There’s a line in that sarcastically anti-feminist diatribe about women needing to stay inside the lines that directly connects to the title of an adjacent track, “Outside the Lines,” which deals more with the figurative or maybe even literal hellfire that awaits certain free thinkers in the corner of the world from which the Greens have arisen. There’s a rejection of exclusionary dogma and embrace of universalism that’s sometimes reactive and even resentful, sometimes cathartic, reflecting the journeys Dani and Zack have been on since reconsidering their churchy origins.
“Both of our histories are saturated in the Protestant tradition,” says Zack. “I was even a worship minister for three years of my life at a church in middle Tennessee. And the song ‘Nothing’s Right’ reflects a bit of the energy and content of deconstruction, finding the emptiness behind the façade of some ideas, and feeling angry and confused and frustrated with it… You know, we’re young. When we got married, we were still very much subscribing to those narratives, because everybody around us was, and unpackaging some of the weight and baggage that we had experienced individually and together as it relates to those traditions was very powerful and life-giving and important.” This also plays out in the album-closing title track: “I’ve played the teacher, the preacher, guru/Maintaining postures, separating me and you/As if the thoughts of God were mine, and mine to speak/I’ve listened with an agenda so I could prove/All of the shit I believe to be true/Just to hide the fear of being weak.”
But rejection of religious dogma is only one of the album’s recurring themes. A “fear of being weak” also plays into some of the more strictly relational numbers. “Could it be there is more to life than keeping at bay what makes you cry?” they ask in “Free Like a Broken Heart,” the record’s most ebullient song.
As a couple, they’ve reexamined their own gender stereotypes, even as they’ve found ways to complement each other as co-writers. “I would say that as it relates to common patterns of gender roles in the world, maybe we’re different at this point in our relationship,” says Zach. “This is painting with a broad brush, but Danielle is just a little more energetic and intense than I am. I lean into, oftentimes to a fault, a more relaxed and trusting approach to the world. And so I think that her intensity balances my tendency to be passive and maybe my softness sort of softens her as well.” In writing together, meanwhile, Dani says, “I think I’m more comfortable in the world of lyricism and just have more experience there, so I tend to focus more on that. While Zack is still obviously able to write lyrics, he just very naturally explores melody and has more technical musical knowledge than I do. That works out really well, actually, that we can balance each other out that way and cover our bases when we write together. It’s a good, unintentional little operation that we’ve got going on.”
Clearly they’re focused on challenging hierarchies — but what you would expect from a matchup so built on, literally, harmony? Going back to their band namesake: “St. Francis of Assisi challenged the idea of hierarchy and of people looking up to other people as the gateway to God,” Dani says. “Besides being the patron saint of poverty, and of nature, he just had this very grounding philosophy that leveled the playing field and made everything sacred.” As it turns out, making a sacrament out of demolishing life’s dividing lines is a noble ambition even for a band.